Letter: Nature or nurture's role in race

August 3, 2001

"Institutional racism is rife in British universities according to a sociologist" (News, THES, July 13) and in general terms he is correct, but I see no good reason to focus on the institutional variety of this human characteristic.

Our universities, like the police, the armed forces and many other institutions, are high-density, multi-ethnic structures, which is why they are particularly prone to racial problems. Racism, however, is internationally endemic and naming and shaming institutions in isolation is not helpful.

The question may have been asked before, but is racism not a subset of what I call "differencism", a biological protective mechanism that to a greater or lesser degree affects the behaviour of us all?

Evolution led us to take note of everything in our surroundings that differed from the tribal norm, be it a body feature or a behaviour pattern. It taught us to link particular genetic characteristics with danger and to stereotype.

These developments gave early human beings and other animals a clear advantage. As with other facets of human behaviour, "differencism" is only part genetic. The role of "nurture", particularly with respect to the continuation and spread of racism, is of major significance.

If there is any truth in these views, then the "big stick" approach to this age-old and deplorable problem is unlikely to affect the innate biological component of racism.

The evidence suggests that suppressing racism, whatever its derivation, by rule of law is of no great value in the long term; if anything it will further impoverish race relationships and will not address the core of the problem.

Apart from "melting pot" solutions, education is the only way to make real progress. It will not eliminate innate feelings, but it will help to control them and should have a profound effect on the negative aspects of "nurture".

There is also a desperate need for more public debate on the origins and ways of controlling racism. Apart from regular verbal wringing of hands, the subject is taboo, even in institutions where free speech is said to exist.

In universities, the stigma of "institutional racism" might well be lifted by discussion with the "blinkers" of political correctness removed.

Racism in the third millennium is in a relatively dormant state but without care and attention might we not return to a much more primitive existence with "differencism" fully reactivated?

Jack Pridham
Professor emeritus School of Biological Sciences
Royal Holloway, University of London

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